Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Every Sha-la-la, Every Woah-woah-oh

The other day, PBS aired a remastered version of the documentary Close to You: Remembering the Carpenters, which originally debuted on public television in 1997. I was excited to rewatch it, for multiple reasons.

I will forever have an appreciation for the Carpenters because they were part of the soundtrack of my childhood. My mom was a devotee of the well-constructed pop of the '70s, and so Richard and Karen played often alongside Elton John, Billy Joel, James Taylor, and Neil Diamond. And I vividly remember watching the 1989 TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story. It was my first exposure to the idea of anorexia, and my 12-year-old mind was blown by the idea of someone looking in the mirror and not seeing reality.

I bought Close to You on VHS at a thrift store or garage sale at some point in the early 2000s. One Sunday afternoon my friends Tiger and Christa came over after we'd gone out to lunch. Tiger spotted the tape on the shelf and said, "Let's watch that." I put it in, believing we'd last about 15 minutes before moving on to something else or they both decided to go home. Instead, we all became engrossed and watched it to the end.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. It's a compelling story well-told. On the surface the Carpenters and their music are easy to dismiss because they are aggressively not cool. But the documentary reveals the musical sophistication behind the group's easy-to-digest pop songs. And of course Karen's profound unhappiness and tragic fate add an undercurrent of darkness and poignancy to so many of her performances. That, along with lots of archival footage and plenty of screen time for an oddly magnetic Richard Carpenter, make for a remarkable watching experience.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Rock Solid: Rush

"If you only own one album by Rush it's gotta be ____________________."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The AllMusic Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
 two exceptions: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits) or live albums. In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

The wonderful and terrible thing about this Rock Solid method is way it subverts expectations.

If you had asked me before I looked at the numbers, I would have predicted the battle for Rush's best album would be between 1976's 2112 and 1981's Moving Pictures. I was close; those two were in the top three. I didn't predict the dark horse from 1980, Permanent Waves. It actually tied Moving Pictures for the highest combined rating and then won the tiebreaker, garnering a higher percentage of 5 star ratings from reviewers.

Since it was so close, this is a case where the reasoning takes on a special importance. Unfortunately Greg Prato's AllMusic review is more informational than evaluative. He says that Permanent Waves found Rush incorporating new wave elements while keeping their "hard rock roots intact," and points out that this got them their biggest hits to that point, Freewill and The Spirit of Radio. His only judgement comes in the final line: "Permanent Waves is an undisputed hard rock classic, but Rush would outdo themselves with their next release." Which, of course, was Moving Pictures.

So Prato makes no compelling case for Permanent Waves. In fact, he does the opposite. But what about the Amazon reviewers?

Indigo Larson feels that, in the unrealistic theoretical situation of a person being allowed to purchase only one album per artist, Permanent Waves should be your Rush selection. Samhot says it's a great introduction to the band: "This would be a perfect place to start for anyone interested in Rush. Features a nice balance of complex musicianship and accessibility that's hard to beat." Similarly, Bill R. Moore writes that Permanent Waves has "the best of both worlds" in terms of bridging early and later Rush.

This is a good start but then something starts to happen in the subsequent reviews, an avalanche of comparisons to Moving Pictures. You know the advertising adage that only the (perceived) inferior product has to mention its rival? Well that seems to be the case here. It would be okay if reviewers brought up the comparison to genuinely argue for Permanent Waves' superiority, but instead we get the following:

  • musicfan585: "Although I still believe Moving Pictures is the band's greatest album (and the best album ever made), Permanent Waves comes awfully close." [Yes, but what do musicfans 1 through 584 think?]
  • Huge Viking: "This is a great album for any Rush fan together with Moving Pictures I consider both as my personal favorites. These two albums alone could have easily been one album"
  • Tom Benton: "With Permanent Waves , Rush burst into the experimental '80s, showcasing a new sound and attracting more attention than ever before. It seems impossible that the band would reach higher heights than this - yet on their subsequent release, Moving Pictures, Rush did just that."
  • Andrew G. Fisher: "Permanent Waves is a preview to Moving Pictures."

Then we come to K. Parsons, who starts out definitively touting Permanent Waves as the best Rush album, and then
Natural Science is the second-to-last great Rush opus (along with The Camera Eye), and "Spirit of Radio" is just as wonderful a radio oriented song as Tom Sawyer....Oh, yeah, I nearly forgot - Rush doesn't get any more "Rush" than on Freewill - the fantastic solos, Randian lyrics, explosive drumming and again, Alex just soaring... reminds me of Red Barchetta a bit. Hmmm. Looks like I'll have to take TWO Rush CD's - this one and Moving Pictures after all. They really are quite inseparable."
If you lost the thread, Parsons compared a bunch of Permanent Waves songs to Moving Pictures songs and then realized how much he or she loves the latter record.

Obviously none of this convinced me that Permanent Waves deserves to be considered the best Rush release, though as always I bow to my methodology. And it is a great album, with the atheist mission statement of Freewill, the optimistic pessimism of The Spirit of Radio, the confessionally affecting Entre Nous, and the instrumental thrills of Natural Science. Wait, did I just talk myself into declaring it my favorite Rush record? No. Moving Pictures still gets the nod, with Roll the Bones (seriously) not far behind.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Rock Bottom: Rush

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with. 

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the All Music Guide (for the critical 
point-of-view) and (for the fan perspective). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative.  Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides, remix, or hits compilations, 2) live albums, and 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member.

* * *

This is why we have rules. By the numbers, Rush's 1974 self-titled debut is their lowest-rated album by both fans and critics. However, the band that recorded that album was comprised of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and John Rutsey. Soon after the album's release, Rutsey was sacked and Neil Peart joined, Since Peart is basically considered the best rock drummer of all time, and because he writes the lyrics, I'm resolute that he should be considered a vital member of Rush.

That leaves 1989's Presto as the album with the lowest combined rating.

What's interesting about this is that, as derided as the band's '80s embracing of synthesizers and electronic drums is among a large contingent of the band's fans, Presto is actually the album where they began going back a more organic and traditional power trio set-up. Gregory Heaney's AllMusic review hypothesizes that the band was "rusty" after their years of experimentation. He stresses that the album isn't bad, just lacking in both ambition and fun. (Heaney also advises   readers to listen to Rush's '70s work instead, which shows he paid very close attention in rock critic school.)

But how about the fans?

According to reviewers, partial blame falls on that nefarious gremlin, production. Tripmaster writes, "The production is so thin, treble, high, crisp, bright...Alex's guitar is ANYTHING BUT beefy, the snare sounds like a cap gun and THERE'S NO BALLS." Christopher Culver says that, "The drums have no punch, the sounds is flat with little variation in dynamic, and there's an incongruous edit in the second track." Lance says, "Presto sounds as if it was recorded in a tin can." The producer of the album was Rupert Hine, who brought experience in the pop arena, having worked previously with for Tina Turner (on a large portion of her 1984 smash Private Dancer album) and Howard Jones. He was a curious choice if the goal really was to get back to basics, as neither of those artists were known for organic-sounding tracks. But as much as I can appreciate the importance of production, it always comes down to the songs, doesn't it?

Well, a lot of fans find those lacking on Presto. Culver takes aim at one particular element: "Neil Peart's lyrics are perhaps his weakest in the entire band's career," he writes. JD politely agrees, adding, "The lyrics could have benefited from more time spent on refinement." As an example he points to The Pass: "All of us get lost in the darkness / dreamers learn to steer by the stars" is a beautiful verse...but, it's followed by "all of us do time in the gutter, dreamers turn to look at the cars." And Lance piles on as well, calling the lyrics "insipid." He concludes that "the songs are B-O-R-I-N-G!...melodious hum-drum" and that on Presto Rush had become "3 musical gods, who somehow, somewhere, forgot how to play."

Before I give my assessment, let me just stop here to marvel at the fact that none of the Amazon reviewers gave in to pun-making. There was not a single comment along the lines of "Rush just doesn't have the magic here." What a fantastic display of self-control!

So, the fans were harsh, but does Presto deserve it? Personally, I say no. The complaints about production are perhaps warranted, and the album is largely workmanlike. As to lyrics, yes, there may be a clunker or two in there, but to my ear there are no outright bad songs (okay, the chorus of Anagram is pretty close to bad). And there are several strong songs on Presto, including the enchanting title track, opener Show Don't Tell, Chain Lightning, The Pass, and the oddly-affecting Available Light.

If I'm picking my least favorite Rush album it would probably be Fly by Night or Caress of Steel, as very early Rush has never been my favorite. I'll also throw 1996's Test for Echo under the bus. It's their only post-1980 album that hasn't connected with me in any meaningful way; mostly because I'm a pop music guy at heart, and Echo is one of Rush's hardest, least song-oriented albums. But at least, I suppose, THERE'S BALLS!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

"I Bring to You My Songs"

This past Saturday I went to what felt like one of the biggest concerts of my life: I saw Billy Joel at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

I've seen plenty of megawatt acts in my time, but this one felt different going in. Billy's music has been part of my personal soundtrack since I was six years old. My mom played the tapes of An Innocent Man and Greatest Hits until I knew those songs by heart. I got the Storm Front album on cassette for the Christmas of 1989. In college Billy Joel's music was a welcome nostalgia trip, a musical warm blanket. As an adult I've expanded my knowledge of his catalog, discovering and reveling in the lyrical depth and intensely autobiographical nature of his songs.

But, despite a couple of good opportunities, I'd never seen the man in person.

Even so, I tempered my expectations as best as possible. Truly transcendent concert experiences are rare (I've had maybe 3 in my life out of scores and scores of shows), and they almost never happen when they're expected. The ones I've had were when I started with neutral-to-generally-positive feelings for the band and the performance completely won me over, pushing those initial feelings toward adoration. But that simply wasn't possible with Billy Joel. The best I could hope for was that the relationship didn't get damaged.

And this underscores the conundrum that an artist like Billy Joel faces when performing. Which master does he serve? He's got lifelong fans like me, the ones who know his catalog backward and forward. He's got the casual fan who's going to go nuts during Piano Man and We Didn't Start the Fire and sway politely through the rest. He's got his own strong critical appraisal of his work. And he's got his 9-piece band who deserve to be challenged and showcased. And he's also got too many hit songs to play them all.

The show I saw was a valiant attempt to serve all of these masters. For reference, here's the setlist:
1. My Life
2. Pressure
3. 1999 (partial)
4. Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
5. The Downeaster "Alexa" (audience choice over The Stranger)
6. Vienna (audience choice over Summer, Highland Falls)
7. Zanzibar
8. The Longest Time
9. An Innocent Man
10. New York State of Mind
11. The Entertainer
12. Allentown
13. She's Always a Woman
14. Don't Ask Me Why
15. Highway to Hell (sung by "Chainsaw," a roadie)
16. We Didn't Start the Fire
17. River of Dreams (w/ a verse of ZZ Top's Tush)
18. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
19. Like a Rolling Stone (partial) > Piano Man
20. Uptown Girl
21. It's Still Rock n' Roll to Me 
22. Big Shot
23. You May Be Right
24. Only the Good Die Young

You can see that it was very hit heavy, with only Zanzibar and Vienna going deep into the catalog (both sounded fantastic, incidentally). The latter, by the way, was one of two times Billy gave the audience a choice. He said, "We can't play 'em all, so we might as well let you choose." Every other song appeared on one of Billy's greatest hits albums. Well, not Highway to Hell, which was truly bizarre. When I told my wife how it grated me that he wasted a precious slot on a novelty cover, she pointed out that it was likely just a way to give Billy's voice a break.

My only other point of discontent was the fact that there was an opener. This is nothing specifically against Gavin DeGraw, who made what he could of a thankless gig, but more about the principle. By my reckoning, if you're an act of a certain caliber, you don't need an opener. Billy is clearly of that caliber.

Anyway, all this got me to thinking: What would my ideal Billy Joel concert have been?

First, I think Billy needs to abandon the idea of an opening act. Rush, believe it or not, is an exemplar for this. The two times I've seen them they've had no opener, instead doing two sets with a strictly timed intermission between. I think this is a perfect format. It allows for two distinct sets and a voice break in the middle.

So I've used that format for my ideal concert.

Set 1
1. Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
2. My Life
3. Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
4. Vienna
5. Why Should I Worry?
6. The Longest Time
7. An Innocent Man
8. Where's the Orchestra?
9. Rosalinda's Eyes
10. Captain Jack

Set 2
1. Say Goodbye to Hollywood
2. New York State of Mind
3. Shameless
4. This is the Time
5. Allentown
6. Prelude / Angry Young Man 
7. Only the Good Die Young
8. And So it Goes
9. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
10. Piano Man

1. Tell Her About It
2. The Stranger
3. It's Still Rock and Roll To Me
4. Famous Last Words

I'd like to think this list works not only in service to me, but would also answer those other masters. It still has 18 hits on it, enough that a casual fan would get plenty of moments. And, as I said above, a concert is the perfect opportunity to turn that casual fan into something more. That's why I included what I consider to be some of Billy's best non-single songs, ones like Miami 2017 and Rosalinda's Eyes. And there's still plenty of room in these songs to highlight the band's versitility, both individually and collectively.

I'll wrap by saying that the concert I saw by no means damaged my relationship with Billy's music. He was in a warm, funny mood, and The Longest Time was particularly chill-inducing. And the fact that I've now seen Scenes from an Italian Restaurant and An Innocent Man live? That's incredible. But it was a weird circumstance in which to see someone whose music I have so intensely personalized. There were nearly 20,000 other people there in that huge cavernous place, so I couldn't help but feel a bit distanced from the songs I hold so close to my heart.

That, unfortunately, is a problem that can't be solved by a setlist revision. Unless of course Billy wants to play at my house sometime.

Billy, it's a standing offer.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

33 and Life

A few years ago I wrote about the fact that I no longer had a voracious appetite for new music. It was difficult to admit, seeing as how I'd previously been so determined to avoid becoming the cliche guy-who-gets-older-and-stops-keeping-up-with-what's-popular. (This is, of course, only a step up from the guy-gets-older-and-believes-all-music-made-after-he-left-high-school-is-shit.)

But the reality was impossible to deny. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out reasons for my decline, and ended up blaming various culprits: Mp3s, marriage, fatherhood, brain research, the fact that several of my favorite artists put out their least compelling work in the mid-2000s. In truth it was probably a combination of all of these things with no single one deserving the whole of the blame.

Today I came across a report about a study that concludes that people tend to stop paying attention to popular music at age 33. Guess what? I wrote the aforementioned essay in 2010, two months after my 33rd birthday.

I'm sure there are people who enjoy being exactly average, but I am not one of them. The idea that I might be playing out some preordained lemming-like march to obscurity is anathema to me. So I take some comfort in the two causation factors the study cited. The first is the discovery of genres outside of popular, top 40 fare. The other is a tendency to return to music you loved when you were young.

I tend to see myself in both factors, with modifications. I loved most of the music that was on the radio when I was ages 5 - 18, but from there I started to take on a historian bent while also looking beyond the mainstream, which led me to the discovery of some of my favorite artists, like XTC and Jimmy Eat World. I still kept fairly current with popular music up to the mid-2000s, but now I haven't even heard most of the songs that are on the iTunes top 10. And I don't especially care.

And I have definitely specialized in my listening. I still buy new music, but it's 98% likely to be from an artist that is one of my favorites, not an artist I've never heard before. And even the list of artists I'd consider favorites has rapidly dwindled, as I wrote about recently. The way I look at it is this: I'd rather spend more time revisiting albums and songs I know I already love than looking for new ones to love.

Maybe that makes me exactly what I always hoped I wouldn't be. Maybe I really am a walking statistic. But. I have to say, even if that's the case, it feels like that's a result not of the laziness and apathy that I once feared, but instead from hard-earned self-knowledge. Yeah, I'm going with that.

Now it's time for me to go give a spin that new They Might Be Giants record.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

I'm Gonna Take Back Some of the Things I Said About You

Every once in awhile I find myself, when a certain heady mixture of nostalgia and narcissism takes hold, re-reading my old reviews.

Revisiting one's opinions can be frustrating, especially when some of those opinions are more than 10 years old. There's a temptation - I call it the George Lucas Feeling - to go back and revise some of the places where I was overly generous or overly dismissive. But I always resist, mostly because it would feel somehow disingenuous.

But there's one particular review that's been sticking in my craw for the past six months or so. And it's not so much about the album itself or what I wrote about it as much as it is what my changed opinion represents.

Last summer I wrote a post about my favorite artists. I'd devised a stats-driven way to determine which musical artists I loved the most, so I shared the process and results. Immediately after, I began to feel uneasy about what I'd posted. Why? It's hard to pinpoint, but mostly it was the nagging suspicion I hadn't quite gotten it right. It seemed like the criteria I'd used was missing something vital.

Not long before posting that, I had gone to see the band that was #15 on the list, Motion City Soundtrack, in concert for the first time. There was a brief Q and A before the show, and it became evident that several members of the audience gained their first exposure to the band via their forth album, 2010's My Dinosaur Life. And indeed, the audience reaction to the four songs the band played from that record was immense.

As with any piece of art, seeing an audience react enthusiastically can't help but change one's view of it. And this can go in any direction, really. It can sway an indifferent opinion, confirm or diminish a positive opinion, or reverse or galvanize a negative opinion. In the case of My Dinosaur Life, an album that had disappointed me terribly when it was released, I found my negative opinion beginning to reverse.

The turnaround process actually began with the release of MCS fifth album, 2012's Go. My Dinosaur Life had so damaged my connection to the band that I didn't even realize Go had come out until a few months after the fact. But once I got ahold of it, all was once again well between MCS and I. I wrote My Dinosaur Life off as the band's obligatory bad record.

But then, after the concert, I revisited My Dinosaur Life. While some of my specific criticisms still held (Justin Courtney Pierre does sound like Mickey Dolenz on Disappear and History Lesson; Delirium and @!#?@! are still not favorites), others changed (Stand Too Close is pretty great; I like the pop culture references now). And, more importantly, so did my overall assessment of the album. I found it was actually a pretty good record.

Perhaps this is simply a matter of adjusted expectations. I expected to love the album when I first heard and I expected to hate it when I revisited it, when in reality it was somewhere in between. But there's something deeper than that, and it goes back to that favorite artists list.

As my budget (both temporal and monetary) for music has become limited, I've found my habits adjusting accordingly. Through no conscious effort my interests have become more and more specialized. At first this seemed like the dreaded "narrowing of tastes" that seems to happen in middle age, that point where all new music becomes "noise" and can never live up to whatever band you liked most in high school. But, thankfully, it's not that. In academia, experts start general and go specific. An entomologist knows a lot about the insect world but eventually becomes an authority on moths, or more likely a specific type of moth. A literature professor starts with English 101 and ends up renowned for her knowledge of Nathaniel Hawthorne, or more likely a specific story by Hawthorne.

I've mentioned many times that I have an obsessive personality when it comes to consumption of pop culture. I tend to go all in, and that's what I did for the first 15 years of of my music fixation (roughly 1994 - 2009). In many ways I loved that time: I cast a wide net and found a lot of great music, learned a ton about pop music history (which is still useful at parties), and made a lot of good mix CDs. But it wasn't sustainable. I've written before about how I used to keep an entire spinner full of CDs I had yet to listen to. During that time, with some exceptions, I tended to love a lot of music a little bit.

Now I find myself loving a smaller amount of artists a lot more. I would guess that at the height of my music consumption phase there were approximately 100 artists whom I would have considered essential. What has happened rather organically and unconsciously is that this number has steadily and drastically dwindled. There are a variety of reasons why my interest in an artist might have fallen away, but in most cases it's some combination of their new work failing to excite while the old work gets ignored, with each circumstance feeding the other.

I'm struck again by how much reaction to an artist, album, or song is how much we decide to that we're going to like it. Our psychological relationship to music is so delicate.

And this brings us back to Motion City Soundtrack and my list of favorite artists. I thought MCS's first album was okay, positively loved their next two, and found initial disappointment in My Dinosaur Life. That next album, Go, was really the defining psychological moment thus far. I liked it enough for it to re-energize my fandom of the band and also to encourage reassessment of its predecessor. Had Go been bad, I wouldn't be talking about Motion City Soundtrack in any favorite artist conversation. They have a new LP coming out sometime this year. What reaction will I have, and how will that affect my view of the band as one of my favorites? I have no idea.

And this is mostly why I've given in to that George Lucas Feeling and removed the post I wrote about my favorite artists. I realize I could just ditch the formula and list those artists that have made the "specialized" cut, but it still won't tell the story that needs to be told. No matter what I write, I won't capture the intangible element that makes me continue to go back to certain artists over and over. Nor can I represent the cyclical, ever-changing nature of these sorts of feelings.

After cancelling his planned autobiography in 2011, Billy Joel said something to the effect of "The best expression of my life's ups and downs continues to be my music." So, from a practical standpoint it occurs to me that the most accurate representation of the music I love is, and will continue to be, my All-Time Favorite Albums List.

My Dinosaur Life isn't on there, but it's a lot closer than it was before.